Photo by Niall Hurson

With a growing global food demand and strains increasing on farmlands, artificial intelligence becomes a necessity for efficient agriculture in its effort to feed over nine billion by 2050, writes Niall Hurson.

Agriculture is the world’s largest industry providing an estimated 1.3 billion jobs and contributes in excess of €2.1 trillion to the global economy. In Ireland the agri-food sector generated €12.1 billion in 2018. The shared aim within the farming community is to produce greater quantities of crops and meat through increased productivity and yield of worked acres. In an effort to achieve this common goal the industry is now turning to Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to help farmers achieve greater yields in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner.

Ireland has been no exception to the current global trend with AI technologies appearing on farms across the nation in recent years. Drone technology has been deployed by farming communities for farm management, pesticide application, sheep herding, fire and crime prevention. In May of this year, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS) teamed up with Coillte to tackle forest fires using innovative drone technology. Coillte recorded 150 fire incidents last year which affected more than 600ac of forestry. 

In order to combat this problem, the two bodies have called in the help of Drone Consultants Ireland who will survey the fires as they happen, providing invaluable data to the various services tackling the blazes. It is hoped the initiative will change how we manage public and privately-owned forests and combat the blazes which have ripped through Irish woodlands in the past. In the US, Californian vineyards have been deployed drones in the application of pesticides. Using a multispectral camera, the drones identify exactly where the chemicals are needed. It has been reported that this method has the potential to reduce pesticide application by 80%. 

AI presents a solution to the labour challenge in Ireland, where just 5% of farm holders are under the age of 35. In addition, 25% were aged 65 years or over in a 2016 census. Ireland is moving away from being an agrarian society where in the past large numbers of people lived on farms. Urban areas are growing, with a constant trickle of people leaving rural communities, opting for a city lifestyle. When employment in inputs, processing and marketing is included the Irish agri-food sector accounted for almost 10% of national employment.

A solution to help with this shortage of workers is AI agricultural robots capable of replacing previous human labour. Automatic milking systems (AMS) is one such advancement using AI to reduce the labour strain within Ireland’s dairy industry. AMS were developed in the late 20th century and have been commercially available in Ireland for over 20 years. The core of these systems allows complete automation of the milking process through the use of an agricultural robot, computers and herd management software. The system provides monitoring of the health status of cows on the farm while freeing the farmer and his workers from the milking process and associated rigid schedule. 

What started out as a small minority of farmers in Northern Ireland is now a growing community of robot milking farms across the island. Lely is one such manufacturer of the automatic milking system with their series of “Astronaut” robots. The concept of free cow traffic grants cows’ constant access to the robot and pasture, and in turn allows the animals themselves to decide when to eat, drink, relax or be milked. Lely is a leading brand in Ireland for AI incorporation on farm and agricultural robots with many other Ag-tech companies developing similar products in order to tap into this lucrative market. Lely has diversified and widened its robot spectrum to incorporate many of the other farm jobs with the capability of tending to animal feeding, manure management, livestock health, and housing. 

The agricultural sector has responsibility when it comes to climate change, with heightened focus in countries aiming for carbon neutrality. Artificial intelligence presents the opportunity for great improvements within our climate goals, with its benefits far outweighing the associated financial costs. Sufficient on-farm education will ensure the technology is used to its full potential and each enterprise reaches its environment neutral goal. The benefits are not constrained to higher income countries, even the basic ability to get real time weather updates can have a huge impact on agricultural practices for all farmers, and especially those in lower income countries.

Through the use of AI technologies, farms across the world are able to run more efficiently, with less workers than before. In turn this allows greater proportions of the population to live in urban areas without a labour stress on farms. The continued rapid uptake of the latest emerging AI technology by farmers will ensure the agricultural sector is in place to meet the global food demand as it grows.